ASHEVILLE, N.C. - “Always Ready, Always There” is more than the North Carolina National Guard’s motto. It was a mission Friday when three hikers became stranded in the North Carolina Mountains.
Members of the U.S. Forest Service located the hikers near the North Carolina, Tennessee border. The hikers endured life threatening conditions the night before, four to six inches of snow, wind gusts more than 30 miles-per-hour, two-foot snowdrifts at 4,100 foot elevation.
With the hikers suffering hypothermia and dehydration, North Carolina Emergency Management called out their Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team (NCHART), the team pairs NCNG aviation with civilian first responders.
“It is pretty rugged terrain and evacuation by ground was not possible without risk to life and limb,” said Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jeff Gordon with the NCNG’s C Company, 1-131 Assault Helicopter Battalion.
Soldiers at the NCNG Flight Facility Two in Salisbury, N.C., prepared for the mission at 7:20 a.m. Aviation Support Personnel loaded the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter with fuel and rescue equipment as NCNG leaders planned the mission and assembled a flight crew.
Gordon was recalled from leave at his home in nearby Mocksville, N.C. He joined Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Tom Underwood, Army Staff Sgt. Todd Bowers with the battalion and Army Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Hamm of the NCNG’s 449th Theater Aviation Brigade and two first responders from the Charlotte Fire Department.
They departed for Asheville Regional Airport at 10:30 a.m. to refuel and pick up a Transylvania County first responder. The crew got directions and updates on the hikers’ condition via Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders radio.
“We keep in contact with Emergency Management throughout the flight and made contact with the guys on the ground,” said Gordon.
They arrived on site in the mountains about 12:20 p.m. The 63-foot-long helicopter hovered near the evacuation site using the rotor wash to blow debris and snow away before the rescuers arrived on foot. The civilian first responders were lowered down to the site to retrieve the hikers by hoist, a thin metal cable winch on the side helicopter’s cargo area.
“It is advanced problem solving, something needs to get done and then they figure it out,” said Gordon.
With the hikers aboard, they flew to Asheville Regional Airport to waiting ambulances from Mission Memorial Hospital.
This is the first NCHART mission in 2014 but the team has flown many rescue missions in the area.
“It has become routine and uneventful and that is a good thing, I never been on a mission more difficult than our training,” said Gordon.
NCHART also executes missions involving swift water/flood rescue, lost persons and urban/wilderness high angle rescues.